A Few Days in the Yucatán: Part I, From a Cancún Nightclub to Mérida.

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It was just a bus ride. A bus ride in my hometown on the California coast is mostly an uneventful thing, except for mountain and ocean views you occasionally get. Although I always enjoy them, I do take them for granted. The bus itself unadorned, the driver mostly somber, if polite. But here on this night in Cancún, the interior of my bus was lit up with a string of holiday lights . Some small strobe light was flashing. A rather oversized stuffed animal raccoon hung from the gear shift. Decals of dancing skeletons and other festive imagery decorated the front of the bus. An action figure raised his hands in victory as he tried to launch off from his glued place on the dashboard. A pounding dance beat emanated from speakers near the driver seat. I kept hearing the phrase “What the fuck!” in between the beats. “La gente está muy loca!” The driver had a partner who stood near the door and bounced ever so slightly to the beat. He jumped out at each stop and announced where we were going to those waiting at the stops. The number was on the bus. It wasn’t really a special route. I think it was the usual Ruta 1 or Ruta 2. The bus routes that take you up and down the zona hotelera, along the length of that built up barrier island. Most people probably had a fair idea where they were going. Still it was a nice touch. Not every bus in Cancún was like this, but it was a nice introduction to a fun evening exploring the night life of the Cancún clubs.

I was on a rendezvous with a young woman I met from Nuevo León. We were going to hit one of those crazy Cancún night clubs where the audience becomes part of the show. The beats, the booze, the dancers, the billowing dry ice condensation, and the erupting confetti go on for several hours. A continuously changing stage show spills into the audience and doesn’t end until its over at some wee hour in the morning, or until you’ve had enough and exit out the backdoor.

I’m not one to do the Las Vegas thing much at all. The whole commercial aspect of everything packaged for your enjoyment, in excess, always seemed a bit base. A bit too easy and, dare I say – unintelligent. I enjoy a camping trip with an air mattress for luxury and the sights and sounds of nature the only means of entertainment. But as I get older I’ve become more enchanted with the variety of things humans do to celebrate life. Even if it’s prepackaged and over the top. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how much fun I might have in Cancún. I knew I would enjoy myself. Just the bath water warmth and clarity of the Caribbean waters is enough to make one feel splendid. The five star hotel with the water level swimming pool bar certainly would present a host of diversionesImage But I wanted to explore those parts of Mexico where Mexicans live, work and play. Actually, plenty of Mexicans play in Cancún. My new friendship with the lovely young lady from Monterrey attested to that. Like me she was visiting with her folks. They were here to celebrate their anniversary. They had been here thirty years before for their luna de miel. Back then it was a handful of resorts, a lot of sand and a brackish, crocodile-infested lagoon. The lagoon still has crocodiles, but the resorts stretch over the entire barrier island.

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Suffice it to say I had a grand time that week. But I believe I’m writing this for those that want to know what the rest of my trip through parts of the peninsula was like. So we leave the circus of Cancún and take the cuota across the peninsula to Mérida.

When I arrived in Mérida I was by myself and dealing with a little culture shock. I arrived with only one ten week course of beginning Spanish under my belt. I could ask for things I needed perhaps. That was about it. If the responder said anything more than “Los baños están a la derecha” my facial expression must have read, “no comprendo”. I enjoyed the city, but I was a bit in a daze. And perhaps smarting a little over the rebuffs to my romantic advances with the señorita in Cancún. I stayed at the Hotel Trinidad which is maybe three or four blocks from the Parque Principal. That is the central plaza where the Cathedral of San Ildefonso and the Yucatán’s Palacio de Gobierno are located. The Hotel Trinidad has a companion hotel two or three blocks away called the Trinidad Galería. That was the one I originally booked into online. In every nook and cranny it’s decorated with some wonderfully expressive Mexican folk art. ImageImageIt’s where my rental car slept anyway. They had a little parking space in back. I walked a couple of blocks down to the Trinidad, with it’s own pared down flair. At around 23 dólares it’s a fair deal. The bed was big. The ceiling was high. A noisy air conditioner up high near the ceiling was not tolerable to listen to. The ceiling fan provided enough relief. The room had a distinct smell of mildew. This probably can’t be helped in the hot and muggy city. The beach I had been just the day before was plenty tropical warm, but a nice breeze off the water tempered it a bit. Here in Mérida it was extra steamy and hot. I suppose that mildew is the same stuff that grows on the buildings. ImageIt leaves a wonderful tropical stain that seems to antique buildings before their time. Although plenty of buildings in Mérida are truly antique. The mildew smell was a bit strong in the hotel room, though. After laying under the fan awhile I went out to explore.

The central plaza is surrounded by most of the places I wanted to visit in Mérida. The Palacio de Gobierno is full of murals by the Yucatán artist Fernando Castro Pacheco. These are quite large depictions of Yucatán history. Lots of Mayan iconography with jaguars, maize, warriors and the inevitable clash with the Spanish.

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Mural of Fernando Castro Pacheco in the Palacio de Gobierno in Mérida.

The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo also houses a few Pacheco works and the paintings of Gabriel Ramirez Aznar. Aznar produced some abstract works. The museum didn’t take up too much of my time. When I was there, not a lot of exhibits were open. A few interesting sculptures took up residence in the courtyard. It was a very nice to walk through, though.

I wanted to visit La Casa de Montejo. This was the mansion of the original conquistador family that conquered the Yucatán. Although the first Montejo did not succeed, the son eventually subjugated the Maya. The reliefs and sculptures on the front of the mansion are probably the most intriguing part of the place. A couple of gothic looking Spanish halberdiers hold their halberds while standing on the heads of the defeated natives. The natives seem to be screaming in agony. Other woolly looking figures, various heads and a few animals abound. It’s all delightfully expressive of that conquest era.

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The mid-19th Century explorer John Lloyd Stephens speculated the stone work was carved by Mayan hands, even if the figures depicted a European gothic style. He wrote that at the time of their creation the only Spaniards on the peninsula were warriors and conquistadors. A Spaniard of such artisanal skill would not likely have been found. I myself never found any information otherwise. The mansion itself is the property of the bank Banamex. While I was in Mérida I frequented the ATM machines just inside the façade under the halberdiers. The bank has opened some of the interior for tours. The building has gone through a few changes over the centuries, so there’s not much there of the original Montejo residence. A short walk through fancy sitting rooms and a dining room gave me some sense of the opulence in which they lived.

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Of course I had to visit el Catedral de San Ildefonso. The cathedral was completed in 1598 with many of the stones from the previous Maya pyramid that stood at this site. Mérida was the Mayan city of T’ho before the Spanish came. It’s quite a large cathedral and just about every time I entered some sort of mass or ceremony was taking place. I don’t know much about Catholicism, but it does seem to be an around the clock religion. At least in these parts. Over to the side in the nave plenty of people were paying their respects to el Cristo de las Ampollas. The Christ of the Blisters was a crucifix carved from a tree that had been hit by lightening. It’s one of those odd expressions of religion that I can find a bit disconcerting. I have to guard against displaying my incredulity when visiting a place full of so many devoted worshippers. The crucifix had been in a nearby town and survived the burning of a church fairly intact, save for some damage in the form of blisters and a blackened surface. It was held as a miracle and eventually brought to Mérida. Later it was completely destroyed when the cathedral was ransacked during the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century. A replica of the crucifix was made and is still housed in the cathedral. Apparently its power to induce reverence was also replicated. There were plenty of devotees praying to the crucifix in its blackened glory. A cloth bib was strung around the waist of the figure for modesty’s sake, a practice I observed often with many a crucifix in this part of Mexico.

Mérida has a rich assortment of sites and activities, but I was only there for a day and a half total. Luckily I was there on the weekend and the festivities in the plaza were plentiful and exuberant. I assume they do this every weekend of the year. The entire plaza is closed to traffic to make way for dancing, drinking, eating and craft vendors. It is the best time to be in the city.

On top of watching and enjoying the festivities I took a stroll down the Paseo de Montejo.Image This is the avenue full of mansions built by those that got rich on the henequen boom of the late 19th century and early 20th century. The production of the “green gold” fiber of the sisal plant made Mérida one of the richest state capitals in all of Mexico at one time. A good portion of the mansions now house corporate offices or government agencies. A few are in a state of abandoned elegance. I didn’t see any that were open for tours at the time. As a matter of fact I found the Paseo to be rather bereft of people for the most part. ImageThey must have been down in the central plaza celebrating with the rest of Mérida. The Museo Regional de Antropologia is in one of these mansions, but it was closed the day I was there. Anyway they were just finishing the brand new Museo del Mundo Maya in another part of town, so I thought I’d try and visit there to get my taste of regional anthropology. Reaching the Monumento a la Patria along the Paseo was a worthy goal. It’s a grand monument to the evolving history of the Yucatán and to Mexico.

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The Museo del Mundo Maya was a visit I had not planned for. It was just being completed when I was there and the city was providing hourly free bus rides from downtown. And there was a cheap entrance fee in honor of its opening. It was a very comfortable air conditioned bus. I waited in a two hour line to get in and fretted over whether I could get a return bus back to the center of town, but it all turned out well in the end. The museum was not completed when I visited, but they had plenty of exhibits ready for viewing. The Mayan artifacts were plentiful and rather astounding to see up close.

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There were some phenomenal examples of artistry carved out of stone, painted on pottery, carved into bone, chipped from obsidian and sculpted from jade populating the museum. ImageThe detailed and elaborate clay figurines were not something I would get a chance to see at the archeological sites. The descriptions of the exhibits were written both in English and Spanish. All in all it was well worth the long line and the wait on the bus.

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Mérida is a big city of close to a million people and I missed a few things. Being a musician I would have enjoyed visiting the Museo de la Canción Yucateca. The Yucatán has a wonderful tradition of what is called trova music. It is a Caribbean music of mostly ballads and love songs accompanied by guitar. Although I am not very familiar with the early trova musicians, I enjoy some of the contemporary nueva trova singers that mostly come from Cuba. The music of this region of Mexico is heavily influenced by the Caribbean. Although there were plenty of Mariachi type musicians, more often than not the bands on the bandstands in the plazas were backed by a lot of Caribbean type percussion instruments, like timbales and congas. The music has a festive island tempo that belies the accordion oompah and the exuberant trumpet of Mexican music I’m familiar with.

I did not need the car I arrived with while I was in Mérida. I did everything I wanted to by foot or public transportation. Bicycles are even available for rent. I could probably have reached Dzibilchaltún, the Mayan ruin just north of Mérida by public transport. I did not have the time. I think it’s best to save a few things for the next visit. Or to wonder about if I never return. In the end I was satisfied with what I did discover in that city. And with a few souvenirs one mostly can’t avoid buying, I headed south out of the big colonial capital. I was venturing on to Mexican villages, old haciendas and the ancient ruins of powerful Mayan city-states.

To be continued…

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